Goalkeeper is a unique position on the football pitch. There are a whole host of things that goalkeepers need to capable of doing that would never even cross the mind of a midfielder or attacker. It's often said that you need to be a slightly eccentric character to want to play between the sticks, and it's not difficult to see why.
But the fact that the goalkeeper is such a standout figure also has its benefits; for example, it means that the players who excel in this position arguably end up with an even more iconic status than outfield players. The highest-performing goalkeepers can end up being titans of the game, and in this article, we'll be taking you through some of the very best.
We'll consider who the best goalkeeper of all time is, guiding you through the main contenders and explaining why they're up there. We'll also give you an in-depth guide to the role of the goalkeeper and the key skills needed in this position.
In soccer, the goalkeeper is the least advanced player in a team, the foundation and "last line" of defence. They are tasked with guarding the goal and preventing the opposition from scoring, and when they successfully accomplish this task, the award is a "clean sheet" (no goals conceded).
Goalkeepers are the only players on the soccer field who are permitted to touch the ball with their hands, which allows them to make crucial saves and catches to stop opponents from scoring. They can only do this inside their own penalty area, and this rule gives them a special status on the pitch. As a result, solid ball-handling and catching skills are crucial for any goalkeeper. But that's not the only skill needed in this position — goalies need to have a variety of skills in their arsenal.
Each goalkeeper brings their own particular talents and advantages. Mikel Arteta's recent controversial decision to replace popular keeper Aaron Ramsdale with Spanish international David Raya shows how different coaches can favour certain attributes and make personnel tweaks accordingly. However, there are a few things that all top goalkeepers need to have in common…
The bread and butter of any good goalkeeper is shot stopping; keepers need to be able to pull off a wide range of saves including close-range blocks, reflex saves from set pieces, safe catches from long-distance efforts, and acrobatic dives to tip shots around the post or over the bar. Top shot-stoppers in the modern day include players like David De Gea, Emiliano Martinez, and Nick Pope.
Confidence is crucial to the goalkeeper role, and one of the most powerful ways of building it up and showing opposition players that you're capable of dealing with danger is by coming out and claiming catches all over your penalty area. Catching is an essential skill for goalkeepers, and at any level, defenders are always grateful for a goalkeeper who is confident catching crosses, shots and lofted passes in a variety of positions.
In the modern game, it's not just outfield players who need to be comfortable with the ball at their feet — goalkeepers are a key part of the defensive unit, and they will be expected by many coaches to come out and receive the ball from defenders, opening up passing lanes and helping to build possession up from deep positions. In order for this strategy to be successful, the player between the sticks needs to have great ball control skills and an ability to play this kind of potentially risky football under pressure without panicking.
This involves both kicking and throwing. Goalkeepers need to be able to pick out a short-to-medium-distance pass even when under pressure from opposition attackers, delivering the ball with accuracy and efficiency when they receive it to their feet, and they also need to be able to launch it long from a goal kick or free kick in a defensive position. As well as having a wide kicking range, they also need to be able to distribute the ball using their hands, whether it's a short under-arm roll out to a defender or a long over-arm throw designed to kickstart a dangerous counter-attack.
Top keepers are expected to constantly be shouting at their defence, organising the back line and ensuring that they're given the protection they need, and that attackers are being marked and tracked effectively. Keepers should command their own penalty area, dominating that box and intimidating opposition players with their presence.
A number of players can feasibly make the claim to be the best goalkeeper of all time. Below, we'll run you through a list of all the main contenders.
If you're considered by many to be the greatest goalkeeper in Manchester United's history, it's also likely that you're one of the best shot-stoppers of all time. Peter Schmeichel was a giant between the sticks for the Red Devils throughout the 1990s, winning an incredible five Premier Leagues, one Champions League, and three FA Cups. What's perhaps even more impressive is his triumph in the 1992 European Championship in Sweden, where he led massive underdogs Denmark to their only-ever major international trophy.
A true pioneer within the goalkeeping world who played a key role in popularising the art of sweeping (aka running far off your line to clear up danger and effectively becoming part of the backline), Manuel Neuer is a legend of the German game. In over 700 matches for Bayern Munich and the German national team, he's cemented his status as one of the country's best-ever keepers, and won an astounding 11 league titles in the process (as well as two Champions Leagues, two Club World Cups and the 2014 World Cup with Germany).
Spanish keeper Iker Casillas hung up his boots in 2020 after two decades at the very top of the European game. A mainstay in the Real Madrid team during the era of multiple galacticos, from Luis Figo and David Beckham to Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, Casillas has become a titan of La Liga, known for his excellent athleticism, reflex saves, leadership skills and strong penalty box presence. These skills were crucial in helping him lead the all-conquering Spain team of the late noughties and early 2010s; as captain of his national side, Casillas was the foundation of two European Championship wins and a World Cup triumph sandwiched in the middle—seriously impressive stuff.
When iconic Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon finally announced his retirement at the age of 45, tributes poured in from fans, players and pundits worldwide. The former Juventus, Parma, PSG and Italy keeper is one of the most decorated players of the 21st century, and his endurance at the top of the game has been nothing short of phenomenal, playing regular football from his debut at Parma in 1995 to his retirement while back at his boyhood club in 2023. Along the way, the 6 foot 4 giant, whose physical attributes, athleticism and sharp reflexes were coupled with excellent leadership skills and penalty-saving ability, won the 2006 World Cup with Italy, the 1999 UEFA Cup with Parma, 10 Serie A titles with Juventus, plus a host of individual awards including a ridiculous 13 Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year awards.
The only goalkeeper to have lifted the World Cup trophy with England, Gordon Banks is a legend of the game in the UK and abroad; making 73 appearances for his country, he was a mainstay during the 1960s and 70s and excelled in top teams of the day such as Leicester City and Stoke City. Banks was known for his cat-like reflexes and reactive shot-stopping, as well as his physical strength and positional intelligence, and to this day he remains arguably England's greatest-ever goalkeeper.
Another historic shot-stopper on this list is Dino Zoff, an Italian icon who is considered one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. Zoff — who played for Udinese, Mantova, and Napoli, before completing a trophy-laden decade-long spell at Juventus — has the honour of being the oldest player to have won the World Cup, having led Italy to glory in the 1982 tournament aged 40 years, 4 months and 13 days. He was known for being an efficient, athletic, traditional goalkeeper, not one for glory saves, instead a pragmatic, calm and composed player who led his back line confidently from between the posts.
It's a sign of Alisson's quality that he has largely been able to keep the immensely talented Ederson out of the Brazil starting XI, but it's no slight on the Manchester City No. 1. Ederson is perhaps the most technically gifted of all the world's goalkeepers, his constant demands for the ball and risky approach to building possession from his own goal line bringing the occasional slip-up, but ultimately proving absolutely crucial to Pep Guardiola's intricate passing football. Ederson's ball skills and distribution are special, and as an all-rounder, he's one of the best of the 21st century, without a doubt.
At the core of Liverpool's success under Jurgen Klopp — which has included a first-ever Premier League title, a Champions League win and other domestic trophies — has been a man who many view as the greatest goalkeeper in the world right now. Brazil's Number 1 is a sensational all-round goalkeeper with excellent ball control and distribution skills, strong shot-stopping abilities, great positional and tactical intelligence and a huge physical presence that allows him to dominate his own area.
Legendary Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin kept a staggering 270 clean sheets in his career, during highly decorated stints with Dynamo Moscow and the Soviet Union national team throughout the 1950s and 60s. He remains perhaps the greatest Soviet player of all time, and he also has a record that is unlikely to ever be beaten: he's the only goalkeeper in history to have won the Ballon d'Or. The nine-time European Goalkeeper of the Year, who won five Soviet Top Leagues, three Soviet Cups, an Olympic Gold and a European Championship trophy, is thought by many to be the best goalkeeper of all time.
If you'd like to find out more about the profound impact this man had on the world of football, check out our guide to The Yashin Trophy, a top soccer prize that has been dedicated to the legendary Russian shot-stopper. Or if you'd like a more general guide to this special position, check out our article on the role of the goalkeeper in soccer.